Joseph “Smokey” Johnson, a master of jazz, an originator of funk and an influential force in rhythm and blues, died on Tuesday, October 6, 2015. He was 78.
“If there is any one drummer active on the scene who epitomizes New Orleans, drummer Smokey Johnson is that drummer,” wrote Kalamu ya Salaam in the liner notes for 1988’s The New New Orleans Music: Jump Jazz.
“He was a very creative musician and he could play in all genres of music,” says old friend, saxophonist Edward Kidd Jordan. “And he could do it at a very young age,” Jordan adds, remembering when Johnson was a student at Joseph S. Clark High School studying with noted music teacher Yvonne Busch.
Johnson gained his greatest recognition for his 28 years playing and recording with Fats Domino’s band. Prior to working with Domino, he was the drummer for Dave Bartholomew’s band. He and producer and arranger Wardell Quezergue opened up some ears when they co-wrote the 1967 classic “It Ain’t My Fault.” It remains an anthem of brass bands across the city and is an essential during the Carnival season.
Johnson solos to kick off the legendary song with a cadence that, he once said, he created while in in high school. He drives the band with that irresistible rhythm strongly accented by his kicking bass drum. It’s typical Johnson, who played the drum set “from the bottom up.”
Smokey was the go-to drummer for recording sessions that included Earl King’s “Trick Bag.” He was also regularly heard with greats including keyboardist/vocalist Eddie Bo and vocalist James “Sugar Boy” Crawford of “Jock-A-Mo” fame.
Johnson grew up in the Treme neighborhood where he attended Joseph A. Craig Elementary School and Joseph S. Clark High School. By age 17, he was out on the scene gigging. “Being in Treme had a lot to do with it,” said Johnson of his early interest in music.
Particularly in his later years, after a stroke and the amputation of his leg made it impossible for him to play the drum kit, the always gregarious Johnson and Jordan would often return to Smokey’s old neighborhood to “hold court” by Joe’s Cozy Corner, where North Robertson Street meets Ursulines Avenue.
“We used to go and see what was going on and hang,” Jordan offers. “That’s the way it was when he was growing up. He’d be telling you like it is and he would be funny. My wife and them would say, ‘Y’all would always make a corner anywhere you’re going to go.’ We’d just be enjoying one another’s conversation.”
Both in New Orleans and while traveling in Europe, Johnson would find time to play some jazz. His Sunday evening jam sessions at Gerry’s club in the Seventh Ward—where his long-time associate, saxophonist Fred Kemp would usually turn up—were legendary. Johnson also teamed with saxophone great Alvin “Red” Tyler and bassist Chuck Badie, playing what the drummer once described as “jukebox jazz.”
“Smokey played all the joints,” remembers Jordan of the days when the drummer often hit the New Orleans back-of-town music clubs. Johnson was a regular at Kemp’s bar on Washington Avenue and LaSalle Street and played drums at North Rampart Street’s renowned Lu & Charlie’s.
“Everybody all over Europe knew him,” Jordan adds. “Me and Smokey went to Europe together and we played in Amsterdam. We were playing traditional music, we would play anything. When Smokey was playing behind me, I could play whatever I wanted to play.”
Johnson also recorded as a leader and his rhythm and blues work has been released on CD and vinyl as a compilation titled It Ain’t My Fault: Legendary 60s Recordings. Besides the title cut, it includes beauties like his own “Tippin’ Lightly” and other funky collaborations with Quezergue.
While Johnson’s major health issues put his drumming days behind him, they didn’t dampen his musical or inner spirit. Supported by the non-profit Jazz Foundation of America, he along with other musicians including saxophonist Red Morgan performed at a variety of area nursing homes. Johnson utilized an instrument created by Morgan that incorporated a tambourine and cowbell attached to a sock cymbal stand. “He kept the music up until he died,” says Morgan.
Johnson, who, following Hurricane Katrina, lived in Musicians’ Village, made his final public performance at 2013’s Voodoo Fest with headliner and old friend, pianist/vocalist Dr. John. Armed with his “rig,” Johnson joined drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Alfred “Uganda” Roberts in the rhythm section of Dr. John’s all-star band.
“That’s my partner,” Johnson exclaimed in a pre-show interview. “We’ve known each other since I was 17 years old. That’s my boy. I curse him out; he curses me out,” he added laughing his infectious laugh.
“Smokey is so off the hook, that’s his blessing,” Dr. John said at the time.
“He could do it all,” exclaims Jordan. “With Smokey you got what you saw.”